At last year's Notting Hill Carnival – before the Red Stripe, warm rum and weak drugs hijacked my general awareness of everything around me – I noticed some teenage boys smoking a joint. As is the case every time I get a whiff of skunk, the aroma took me straight back to my teens and early twenties, flooding my mind with a barrage of memories that I'm aware were a lot of fun, but can't really string together all that coherently.
I was instantly beaten around the brain with that old catch 22: instinctively wanting to take a huge toke, while also being very aware that doing so would be a terrible idea. That the innocent Nike foot soldiers in front of me would morph into a terrifying kaleidoscope of bum-fluff demons, their neon rosary beads and NOS balloons forming some kind of oppressive Goblin City on the streets of West London.
Not for the first time, I began to think about the sometimes pleasurable, often worrying, mostly confusing legacy weed has had on my life. Because here's the thing: getting high can be a lot of fun, but let's not pretend that smoking a load of skunk doesn't fuck you up.
My first spliff isn't particularly memorable; smoking weed just became a thing I did with my friends around the age of 16. And by "a thing", I don't mean a passing fad or an occasional pastime; it was all I did. Every day after school, we'd either sit in the park – or climb a tree in Hampstead Heath, if we were feeling especially motivated – and get high. I'm sure many of you have similar memories.
Sometimes we smoked soap bar and ended up with hot-rock holes in our clothes; sometimes we smoked bush weed – and a lot of it, because it was full of seeds and wouldn't get you lean if you didn't. But mainly it was skunk, the one your parents tell you is much stronger than the stuff they had in their day. Which, in fairness to your parents, is accurate: it's about five times more potent than that brown Thai stick stuff you get wrapped up in red string.
Not everyone has the same experiences with weed. The overwhelming amount of conflicting studies – the ones that prove cannabis definitely causes schizophrenia, or the ones that prove it definitely doesn't – should be evidence enough of that. Weed works for some people. It doesn't work for others. However, I can't help but feel there's a bit of a confirmation bias going on among some of those it does "work" for.
The majority of heavy smokers I know would tell you they can regularly get high and get on with their lives without feeling lazy, paranoid or anxious. Press some of them a little harder and they'll admit that this isn't always the case; that they'll often find themselves experiencing more social anxiety and paranoia the morning after smoking compared to how they feel following a weed-free evening. Or that they can't suppress the thought that their heavy skunk consumption had something to do with their transition from outgoing 15-year-old to introverted 25-year-old.
Of course, all of this is qualitative at best – none of it has been recorded, tracked, medically qualified or any of the other stuff it might take to convince the loudest voices on r/trees. However, the sheer number of people who've shared these feelings with me is enough to suggest there are probably others out there who are feeling the same, but have chosen to keep up appearances around their friends.
Looking back, I was definitely one of those kids. I lived close to a friend of mine in North London and, more often that not, if we'd been smoking I'd crash on his floor, the thought of a walk – followed by a night bus – down Holloway Road simply too much of an ordeal for my hazy brain. I knew I'd probably survive, but I couldn't deal with the stress of wondering if every person I saw might be a genuine nutter, out to punch me in the throat and steal my Nokia.
This sort of thing went on for years: smoking and kind of enjoying it (or at least thinking I did), before leaving whichever house I was in and readying myself to deal with all the bloodthirsty degenerates waiting for me outside. Bizarre, paranoid behaviour began to seem normal; I accepted it as collateral for the apparent enjoyment of smoking weed with my friends.
I still wonder if weed made me act and think a certain way, or if that's just how I was at the time. I tend to think getting high exacerbates the negative thoughts we already have, and I recognise now that I was a pretty anxious, nervy kid. So smoking bud, given my propensity to feel anxious and nervy, was clearly a bad idea. Only, I felt I had to join in, because at an age where fitting in is more important than your own mental health, how could I say no?
Even now, hearing that people I once knew have gone through some kind of drug-induced psychosis doesn't seem all that dramatic. You just shrug your shoulders and try to remember how they were when you were younger. Weren't they always a bit weird? Or did skunk just do a total number on them?
I suppose I'm lucky that I got away from weed before it got to me. My suspicion is that a lot of people simply smoke through their worries, refusing to admit that the moments of anxiety and paranoia are really happening.
I'm not anti-drugs in any respect, and I'm certainly not going to judge anyone for smoking weed. I'm also not suggesting that there's anything inherently wrong with cannabis (the medicinal benefits are numerous and deserve all the praise they get), or that some people really can get through an eighth a day well into their eighties without any negative side effects.
But what I am saying is, if you smoke a lot of weed and do feel creeping thoughts of anxiety and paranoia, maybe just don't smoke so much? Or at least admit to yourself that what you're feeling is real rather than dismissing it and ripping another bong. Your brain will thank you in the long run.
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